Champion the Strengths in Our Teens: What Is Strong as Opposed to What Is Wrong
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Taylor McDonald, the Engagement Manager at Prevent Child Abuse NC, told me recently to focus on “what is strong as opposed to what is wrong.” That is a solid and catchy sentiment. So what would change if we championed the strengths in our children instead of labeling their problems? What if we motivated them to identify what they are doing well and the resources available to overcome difficulties instead of only pointing out what needs fixing and prescribing a solution?
Studies are beginning to show that the years of building up our children’s self-esteem have only produced a group of teens who think well of themselves but still suffer from anxieties and stress beyond their ability to handle. Parents who identify their teen’s unique capabilities and strengths can take the focus off the deficits and begin to foster well-being. This is called a strengths-based perspective, focusing on identifying resources available to provide a solution and setting positive expectations.
How does or would this look for your family? I remember back in high school when I was struggling with an algebra problem. I came to my father and asked for help. He looked at the problem and promptly asked me what facts I had. I found myself explaining all the theorems and definitions to him and then reviewing the example problem so he was up to speed with what we were doing. When we returned to the problem, I already had the information I needed to solve it. It had been there all along, but Dad helped me find it. Dad’s system empowered me to move forward on my own instead of becoming dependent on him for the next problem. This is a simplistic version of a strengths-based approach to problem-solving. You, the parent, must believe your child has potential and strengths, and then you can support them in identifying these strengths. Ask questions like, What do you do well? What strengths might be helpful? or, like my father asked me, What do you know to be true?
Accepting a label as true tends to remove the motivation to change. Therefore, we should avoid labels, name-calling, and strong language that create a negative reality. Instead, practice the art of identifying positives in your teen. This may be something you have first to practice yourself. Take time now to identify the unique strengths you have as a family. I spent a day or two pondering this for our family: faith, love, and connection are at the top.
Once you change your perspective, you will be better able to help your teen identify the strengths and supports that exist in themselves and their natural networks.
There is power in positive thinking. Long ago, researchers defined hope as the intensity with which an adolescent believes in a personal and positive future, and they found that it improved health outcomes in hospitalized children. It starts with you, the parent, believing there is success beyond the initial recognition that a problem exists. Your unconditional support will be a strength they can rely on, and then trust that your child can adapt as needed.
Ask your child what a positive future looks like because it may not be what you are thinking. What matters to the adolescent mind of your teen is different from what matters to you. Let them identify what consequences are concerning, remembering the gap between your adult perspectives and theirs. What will life look like when this problem is solved? Value the differences in perspective and affirm any steps they take in the right direction.
Your teen will have more confidence to take those steps into the solution once they have identified everything they know as true: the constants, strengths, supports, and goals.
Focus on what is strong as opposed to what is wrong. According to the Resiliency Initiatives, we can begin a strengths-based approach to our children’s problems by asking for the story and discussing the challenges. Next, we should help them envision a future on the other side of this difficulty. What does success look like? Then, we invite our children into the challenge by exploring the applicable strengths they have already developed. Sometimes, it is necessary to explore resources outside of themselves. Are there other people or organizations that can help? After identifying their unique strengths and capabilities, you can help them lay out the steps needed to reach the goal. It is realistic to trust that our young people have the motivation to succeed and be valuable members of their community.
For resources on this topic or others, please contact Pam Kerley, the 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center. 4-H is a positive youth development program offering programs that suit a variety of backgrounds, interests, budgets, and schedules. From in-school to after-school, clubs to camps, 4-H programs are available in Lee County, and we welcome children who want to have fun, learn, and grow. In North Carolina, 4-H is brought to you by the NC State Cooperative Extension. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s experts and educators share university knowledge, information, and tools you can use daily to improve your life.